Of course, we all have favorite family recipes, especially at holidays, and no other holiday beats Thanksgiving for having a focus almost entirely on food. In most families, one member becomes the designated producer of the Thanksgiving dinner, and in my family that person, happily, is me. I say happily because the meal doesn’t seem authentic to me unless I eat the same food I had as a child. One year, when I accepted an invitation to have Thanksgiving at the home of a friend, I found myself the next day preparing another Thanksgiving dinner just for my family because I had so missed the dishes that resonate for me. Above all, I had missed the turkey stuffing that has come to be the only one I like.
Most stuffing, especially what one finds in turkey dinners in family restaurants, tends to be a pasty mass of bready stuff seasoned with an oversupply of dried sage, a texture and a flavoring unpleasant to me. And when one dines in the homes of others, the stuffing may well be the one featured on the latest November cover of one of the glossy food magazines that invariably offer innovative Thanksgiving recipes just to break the monotony of the holiday meal. While they sometimes offer more-or-less traditional recipes that include such standard ingredients as cornbread, oysters or sausages, these recipes usually rely on clever ingredients such as fennel, spinach, pecans and toasted brioche. Such medleys might be fun to try at some other time of year, but, these stylish ensembles have nothing to do with my beloved stuffing recipe, which is for me the most symbolic dish on my Thanksgiving menu.
Aunt Hannah’s semi-secret recipe
For me, recalling Thanksgiving meal means the memory of my mother impatiently waiting for my father to return from a football game so that we can all sit down to eat. And, I am also reminded of the teasing I endured from an older brother who enjoyed watching me go white around the mouth when I had reached the limits of anger. In other words, Thanksgiving brings with it some memories that are not always delightful in that Norman Rockwell way, but a true reflection of the habits and style of an individual family.
My family’s stuffing recipe has taken on a meaning beyond Thanksgiving in that it reflects the way recipes came into my family. Many families have one member who is understood to be a wonderful cook, and in my family that was my grandmother’s sister, Hannah. She lived in a nearby city, and every time we visited her, we came back with a recipe for whatever delicious dish she had served.
My mother’s favorite cookbook, “The Settlement Cookbook,” which I inherited from her, is stuffed with bits of paper with recipes written in her beautiful hand: a chocolate cake made with brown sugar, a fruit salad dressing made with pineapple and lemon juice, and an elaborate salmon patty dish I used to enjoy and almost forgot. To me, these recipes for dishes my mother loved are like letters from her, affirmative statements about how delicious life can be. And I am pretty sure that the dishes were first tasted at the home of Aunt Hannah.
I tested my migratory theory of how recipes came into my family several years ago when Aunt Hannah’s two daughters traveled to my city and I met them for lunch. We had loads of family news to discuss, and during a lull in the conversation, suddenly, apropos of nothing, I burst forth with “How do you make your Thanksgiving stuffing?”
The sisters caught one another’s eye, eventually turning their gaze at me and one said: “This is going to sound strange to you, but we always make our stuffing with corn flakes.” I had never before heard of anyone using that ingredient for the festive bird. This was the one, true and only acceptable stuffing for Thanksgiving, and just as I had suspected, the recipe was introduced by fabulous Aunt Hannah. The stuffing it produces has great texture that allows the stuffing to hold its shape and not go all limp, yet it is moist from having absorbed the juices from the turkey. Said juices also combine well with the stuffing ingredients, which are few and simple:
Aunt Hannah’s Turkey Stuffing
Makes enough for a 16-pound bird
- Melt the butter in a sauté pan over medium-high heat.
- Add onion, celery, green pepper and sauté until brown.
- Combine with bread crumbs, eggs, water, sugar and salt and pepper and mix well.
- Add cornflakes and mix lightly.
- Use this mixture to stuff the bird.
Barbara Haber is a food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe’s Schlesinger Library at Harvard University where she built a major collection of cookbooks and other books related to food, and influenced the recognition of food history as a viable field of academic and professional study. She founded the Radcliffe Culinary Friends, which supported the library’s culinary collection and provided a forum for food writers from across the country to present their work to an appreciative audience. She also held monthly gatherings, called “First Monday,” where local chefs and writers came together to hear talks on timely food-related topics.
Barbara’s books include “From Hardtack to Home Fries: An Uncommon History of American Cooks and Meals” and “From Betty Crocker to Feminist Food Studies: Critical Perspectives on Women and Food,” which she co-edited. She has written numerous articles and reviews including “Home Cooking in the White House” published in “White House History.” She is currently working on a book about food and World War II in the Pacific tentatively called “Cooking in Captivity.”
She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and currently serves on the awards committee and chairs the Who’s Who Committee of the James Beard Foundation. She is a frequent speaker on topics related to the history of food as well as popular food topics, and has appeared on television’s “The Today Show,” “Martha Stewart Living” and The Cooking Channel. Barbara was elected to the James Beard Foundation’s “Who’s Who’s in Food and Beverages” and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d’Escofier.
Photo: Cornflake stuffing ingredients. Credit: Barbara Haber